By: Jackson Morrill
President & CEO of the American Wood Council
There has been a significant shift inside the Beltway within the last six months, as both Congress and the Biden Administration have both turned fully to focus on climate issues, and in particular reducing the country’s carbon footprint. Among the many policy options being considered is how to use the federal purchasing power – in particular as it relates to infrastructure and the built environment – to reduce carbon emissions and influence public policy around the country. This opens up both incredible opportunities and potential risks for the wood products sector, and at the heart of the debate will be how to properly account for carbon in building materials so that green procurement programs and other policy options maximize opportunities to reduce carbon.
Carbon accounting for buildings is complicated, and depending on the chosen approaches, can have significant impacts on material choices. Most approaches focus on a measurement of “embodied carbon” in a building, which is the measure of the Global Warming Potential (GWP) based on carbon emissions associated with harvesting/mining/extraction, transportation, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life of building products. Simply put, it’s the total GWP emissions released into the atmosphere from a material’s life cycle as determined by life cycle assessment.
Through almost all federal agencies, the Biden Administration has made it a priority to focus on lower embodied carbon solutions, most notably at the Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture and elsewhere at the federal level. A perhaps less known but increasingly important agency that can drive decarbonization and carbon accounting efforts is the General Services Administration (GSA) and its Embodied Energy Task Group (EETG), which has played a key role in developing recommendations thus far.
The EETG has proposed two recommendations thus far for procurement policies across the portfolio of GSA building projects. AWC believes that these recommendations – with some important modifications – could serve as the vehicle to support wood products in federal green building procurement and in other more far-reaching, carbon-related public policy.
The second recommendation in particular, which calls for whole building lifecycle assessment for projects over $3 million, provides an optimal approach to carbon accounting. Data could be drawn from the federal governments lifecycle inventory databases, known as LCA Commons and the USLCI Database, using agreed to criteria for data collection and management. Having a central database would create a level playing field for all materials.
In addition, reductions in global warming potential should be measured against real buildings built by the federal government and not by models, as this provides the closest “real life” scenario. Finally, stored carbon in building materials (known also as “embedded carbon”), should be credited in calculating the total carbon benefit of materials. For wood products, this means the carbon sequestrated in the forest, which is then continued to be stored in wood products for the life of the building, should be counted in calculating the total carbon benefit in those wood products. Through this approach, the GSA goal to achieve net zero carbon buildings by 2050 is realistic.
Proper carbon accounting methods are critical to AWC and the wood products industry’s mission to ensure transparent data across the built environment. AWC supports directly comparing the environmental performance of different building materials and a whole building life cycle assessment. This federal model should be used in the states and private sector to ensure a nationally consistent approach as to avoid “the Wild Wild West” that would be created by inconsistent carbon accounting methods.
As the federal government continues to seek decarbonization solutions, it mustn’t overlook the value the wood products industry can bring to rural and urban America. Simply substituting wood for conventional building materials could provide almost a tenth of the global carbon emission reductions needed to meet 2030 goals. 1 That’s an incredible leap toward reaching the Administration’s carbon emission reductions goals with a simple substitution.
Decarbonization across the entire federal government, as this Administration is pursuing, is nothing short of Herculean. In the built environment, it starts with the right approach to carbon accounting. And with it, wood can be the key to a more sustainable future for all Americans.
1. Austin Himes, Gwen Busby, Wood buildings as a climate solution, Developments in the Built Environment, Volume 4, 2020, 100030,
ISSN 2666-1659, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dibe.2020.100030.